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NASA chief on Blue Origin protest: “They have every right” to sue

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Former Florida Senator Bill Nelson was confirmed as NASA administrator earlier this year.
Enlarge / Former Florida Senator Bill Nelson was confirmed as NASA administrator earlier this year.

NASA

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he is not upset with Blue Origin for pursuing all legal avenues after losing a space agency contract for a lunar lander.

“We are a nation of laws and as such we want to follow the law,” Nelson said in response to a question from Ars. “They have a right of appeal, and they have chosen to exercise that right. They have every right under the law to do that, and there will be a determination. And then we will move on.”

Nearly five months have passed since NASA selected SpaceX to build a Human Landing System for its lunar program, named Artemis. After the decision both Blue Origin and another bidder, Dynetics, protested the award to the US Government Accountability Office, and in late July the protest was rejected.

That was enough for Dynetics, but Blue Origin has since pressed ahead with both a public relations campaign—designating SpaceX’s proposed lander as “immensely complex and high risk” as well as further legal action. In August, Blue Origin sued NASA and the federal government in the US Court of Federal Claims, and this pending legal activity has iced efforts by NASA and SpaceX to move ahead with a lunar lander.

Blue Origin’s actions have fostered a considerable amount of enmity among some in the space community, but that has not deterred the rocket company owned by Jeff Bezos from pursuing a scorched-Earth campaign. But publicly, at least, Nelson is content to let Blue Origin have its day in court.

Nelson made his comments last week during a visit to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston, along with Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. Nelson said the agency’s decision to select a single lunar lander bid was justified because Congress provided far less than NASA said was necessary to award multiple contracts for the lunar mission.

“NASA only had enough money to make a selection for the first competition, which was a demonstration lander on the Moon,” he said. “And NASA made that choice of one of the competitors. But what Pam and I have said is that we want a competition for all the other landers that are going to land on the Moon, what we call sustained landing over a decade, or a decade and a half period. And so that’s where we’ve got to get additional resources to get that competition going.”

So far NASA has been unsuccessful in securing this extra funding, however. There are potentially three budgetary avenues for doing so, but none is close to a sure bet. Earlier this year Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., where Blue Origin is based, added $10 billion for a second lunar lander as part of a NASA authorization bill. But this seems to be a non-starter in the US House.

A second option is through the 2022 budget process. So far the US Senate has not released a proposed budget for NASA next year. In its budget, the US House did not provide funds for a second lander. Anything remains possible during the fluid budget process, however, which will play out over the next several months.

Finally, Nelson has suggested that $10 billion for a second Human Landing System be included in a $4.5 trillion infrastructure bill. However, in a draft bill outlining potential projects, the US House of Representatives left out extra funding for the Human Landing System.

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